The Tragedies of the Stay-at-home Protests
Michigan stay-at-home protesters, April 15, 2020

When the stay-at-home/social distancing “protests” started, I wondered why they were receiving so much attention from MSM. As was frequently pointed out, the people engaged in them represent a small minority of the country. Most support the stay-at-home orders, and agree that opening the country too soon would be a potentially catastrophic move. Why amplify this contrary message by giving it all that airtime?

On reflection, though, the disproportionate coverage makes perfect sense. For starters, the protests are newsworthy both as expressions of civil unrest linked to POTUS’s inconsistent messaging on the topic, and where the abuse of the Second Amendment by some protesters is concerned, notably during the recent occupation of the state capitol building in Lansing, Michigan. The absurdity of almost unfettered access to military-grade weapons remains an urgent public safety issue. Much of the rationale for the excess attention lies elsewhere, however. The protests offer things that many of us staying at home are starved for: color, motion, energy — a looking-glass world glimpse of the “normal” life we’ve given up for the present. At a time when there’s not a whole lot of competition, these qualities make them good television. The protesters themselves stir conflicting feelings in us. On the one hand, they embody the fear many of us have of a potential repeat of 2016, and those assault rifles some of them are garishly accessorizing with highlight our sense of powerlessness in the current situation to work against such an outcome. But there’s also (let’s admit) some schadenfreude in watching people willfully engaged in behavior we know to be potentially life-threatening. First-line responders we ache with, and mourn for. These protesters? They’re like degraded gladiators, or drunk teens playing Russian roulette, secure in their convictions about their parents’ foolishness and their own invincibility.


And there’s a tabloid element that draws us, the wackadoodle fringe stuff that, it’s tempting to imagine, stands in for the whole and helps diffuse at least some of the menace the protesters represent. The widespread comparisons of the stay-at-home orders to Nazi tactics are a notable example. Among the earliest were the attacks against Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer:

Not only is the comparison laughably out of proportion to the governor’s actions to promote the common weal (however they’re judged): the simultaneous presence of avowed white nationalists at the protests points to a fundamental incoherence in the protesters’ grievances. She’s not our kind of Nazi??? But then, incoherence is not in short supply:

The cross, a symbol traditionally held to represent the height of self-sacrifice, c/w the selfish declaration of equivalence with first-line responders (“We are essential”) c/w a vague appeal to “Freedom” c/w whatever the hell InfoWars thinks it stands for. Signs equating vaccination with tyranny (when a vaccine, medical experts agree, is the only way our species will move beyond the threat of COVID-19) and parodying women’s assertions of bodily autonomy (when the far right generally continues to be hostile to most if not all forms of women’s autonomy). Srsly, WTAF?

It’s easy to stay focused on the yuk-yuk quality of all this. As a former English prof who taught critical thinking skills in dozens of rhet/comp courses over the years, though, I take little pleasure in incoherence when its effect (and for at least some, evidently, its object) is indiscriminate razing. It’s not that there aren’t real grievances to be aired, God knows: the ongoing degradation of our environment, the growing wealth gap, the widespread lack of access to health care, systemic racism/sexism/homo- and transphobia, and so many other issues need attention, and all of the people engaged in these protests are impacted by at least some of them. Environmental issues like climate change, notably, affect all of us. And there have of course been times in our species’ history when violence against entrenched interests has proven itself to be an arguably necessary option, viz. the Haitian revolution, the long history of pre-union labor unrest, the Stonewall riots, etc. But being able to articulate what the hell you’re fighting for is, IMHO, a prereq for effecting positive lasting change. Lacking that, Lizard Brain goes on a bender and, to quote the refrain of the old Dead Kennedys song “Riot,” “Tomorrow you’re homeless, tonight it’s a blast.” Or in the time of a pandemic: Tomorrow you’re dying.

Which returns us to the most obvious irony of the stay-at-home protests: their targets are state and local officials who are enacting policies to try to save lives, including those of the protesters themselves. For participants whose anger is driven by economic distress, the targeting makes some sense since these are the officials whose decisions most immediately affect their well being — though pitting the economy against public health in a simple either/or choice is a false dichotomy that the federal response (if that’s not too strong a word for it) is foisting on the states. The incoherence of much of the messaging, however, suggests pretty strongly that at least a lot of protesters have other reasons for participating. One Twitter user, for example, asked this perfectly reasonable question:

She could have pointed to the Second Amendment porn as well. There’s also all the nasty ad hominem stuff. Michigan state Senator Mallory McMorrow recently observed that much of the toxic “activism” surrounding the protests that her staff was having to deal with was from people who weren’t her constituents, and consisted of little more than verbal abuse: “b — —,” “c — —,” “Nazi” (inevitably), “and (though it’s hard to imagine) worse.” The virulence of the attacks on Gov. Whitmer herself seems pretty clearly to be fueled in large measure by misogyny. This is, after all, the governor whom Trump disparaged as “the woman in Michigan,” and advised Mike Pence, the nominal head of the White House’s COVID task force, not to work with. And then there’s this recent display of fellow feeling by an Illinois protester towards the state’s Jewish governor, J.B. Pritzker, which as more than one Twitter user pointed out was the message that greeted prisoners entering Auschwitz (“Work makes [you] free”):

But of course that didn’t stop at least one of her commadres from comparing Pritzker to a Nazi:

At least they both wore face masks.

It’s safe to infer from this nonsense, I think, that for participants like these, the point of the protests isn’t to press a particular agenda, but rather to make a particular kind of noise. And identifying the inspiration for that noise doesn’t require a degree in rocket science. It has become a commonplace to observe that Trump’s disastrous participation in the recent White House coronavirus briefings was serving as a surrogate for his stoopid rallies. Indeed, Trump himself recently made the comparison. By extension, it’s easy to see these protests as a surrogate for the rallies for his followers, specifically as a sort of virtual iteration of the call-and-response chants that are such an ugly feature of them. POTUS tweets “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and his followers respond to that call by showing up at the state capitol with their guns, signs, and inchoate rage. It would of course be wrong to dismiss this aspect of the protests as mere noise, just as the rallies can’t be written off as bad off(-off-off-off…)-Broadway political theater. Communal expressions of resentment and aggrieved privilege are the rallies’ emotional core, but not their sole or even primary raison d’être. Since the Trump base is defined less by what its members believe than by what and who they hate, the political function of the rallies is to validate and mobilize those resentments and grievances. “We are essential,” potentially a positive statement of self-affirmation, is weaponized as a belligerent assertion of privilege.

To what end?

If we’re starved for the good aspects of our pre-pandemic lives, many of us are even more desperate at the present moment, I suspect, for a measure of logic and coherence in our public life. I know I long for a world in which civil discourse, not to mention science, would play a more meaningful part in the nation’s response to COVID-19. A significant expression of our president’s deranged political instincts, though, has been his dismissal of the ideals underlying our nation’s social contract and his administration’s concomitant conversion of the executive branch, and increasingly the other branches of the federal government, into a crime syndicate. This form of organization doesn’t rule by reasoned negotiation, but by the authoritarian fiats of the patrone and the guns of his henchmen. Any logic not of the do-as-I-say variety is anathema to it. Nor is this any central-casting mob operation, since the great majority of those embracing its rule aren’t doing so through fear, but rather with a weird quasi-religious fervor that continues to prove itself immune to rational argument and even the most seemingly irrefutable evidence.

This fervor makes the Trump cult useful to the current administration in many ways: as a reliable voting bloc, as a presidential security blanket, and importantly as an army from the nation’s political id that can be unleashed to disrupt political and civic life, mute or squelch dissent (even among leadership of Trump’s own party), and make the feeble, grossly incompetent leader of the free world look stronger than he is. This latter feature also makes the stay-at-home protests one of the most garish encapsulations of the multi-layered tragedy now playing out before our eyes.

One of the most obvious tragedies of our current situation is the toxic effect of partisan facts. As has been often pointed out in so many words, the COVID-19 virus doesn’t care what your sign says or how big your gun is. The steadily rising death toll in my county starkly bears out this truism:

There’s nothing here but a raw body count. As of noon today (May 8), 119 of my neighbors have fallen. That’s about the size of the senior class I graduated from high school with. None of my acquaintances have died or lost a loved one to the virus to date, so I know nothing about these victims — whether our paths ever crossed in a local market or at a Pirates game or the symphony; who they voted for in 2016; whether they ever attended a Trump rally or were ignoring the social distancing guidelines. The virus is highly contagious and relatively lethal, full stop. The only facts about it that are at all partisan involve the correlation between certain behaviors and the likelihood of contracting it and giving it to others. And many of those behaviors are on in-your-face display at the protests.

This points to another prominent, if not necessarily obvious tragedy: the spectacle of so many of our fellow countrymen and women being so wholly and willingly duped. While it’s easy to dismiss the shared sense of grievance and resentment at the heart of the Trump cult as selfish and nasty, it would be wrong to overlook the aspirational element in the allegiance of its economically and culturally marginalized members, the sense of hope Trump’s 2016 election gave them that perhaps a real change in their circumstances had finally arrived. On those grounds, I’m empathetic. It’s a tragedy of our current national situation that so many of our neighbors have attached their hopes to such a demonstrably false prophet and sleazy mob of apostles.

It’s also a tragedy, however, that that hope has become so intertwined with the selfish and nasty stuff: the fear and loathing of people not like them, and desire to see those people suffer. It’s a tragedy that the protesters’ thuggish agitprop, as Senator McMorrow notes, has been “drowning out the people…who desperately [need] real help from elected officials,” not to mention helping to impede our collective recovery from the coronavirus. Finally, it’s a tragedy that after all this is said, the spectacle of frothing rage and fast-tracked natural selection still holds some measure of entertainment value for us. As the COVID pandemic continues to unfold, we watch from our homes in horrified fascination, wondering how many more times our president will play alpha dog and piss on our cherished norms and sense of basic decency? How many parents and grandparents will become cannon fodder — Trump would style them “warriors” — to protect the interests of the 1%? And when the sound of an AR-15 will first puncture the cacophony of a state-house standoff?

I’m a Pgh-based writer and scholar.

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